What is a Life Worth? What price would we pay to save a life?

I’ve been pondering this question lately.*  I was especially stirred to see a TV News report on the tragic death of 2 Aid workers in Sudan, and the risk that a NZ Aid worker there was facing, as they sought to help get food to people suffering in the biggest crisis the world is currently facing.  The striking contrast was that the death of 2 individuals made the news, yet there was little mention of the 10,000 people currently dying in Sudan every month due to famine and disease.

What would I do or pay to save a person’s life?  My initial answers include ‘lots’, ‘it depends’, “I’m not sure’.  My mother-in-law was in a car accident, that broke her neck and almost killed her.  The cost to save her life, including 6 months in hospitals, would be well over $100,000 – from our perspective, this is money well spent, as her life is worth far more than this to us.  If loved ones are dying, most people will spend whatever they can to try to save their lives.  Yet as people move further away from us, both physically and relationally, what we are willing to do or pay to save their life naturally reduces.  However, the question that lingers in the back of my mind is how quickly it reduces.  For the Priest & Levite in the story of the good Samaritan, it appears that religious and cultural barriers quickly reduced the price to zero.  For ourselves, as the person in peril changes from family to neighbour to acquaintance to Sudanese refugee, how quickly does the price we actually pay reduce to zero?

At times I’ve asked Bible College students “if you were going to give your life to save the lives of others, what’s the minimum number of people you’d need to save in order to be prepared to sacrifice your life?”  The first answer they give is usually “one life” (probably recalling the words of Jesus in John 15:13 “ Greater love has no one than this, that you lay down your life for your friends.”).  But after discussion, most students settle on a number a bit higher than one, depending on their personal circumstances (eg if they have dependent children etc).  However, they are all aware that, at least in theological theory, we should be prepared to sacrifice our lives totally to save one, or maybe a handful, of other people.

If we listen & obey Jesus’ words, they will challenge our hearts, lives and finances.  Jesus summed up the 10 commandments in 2 simple commands – to love God totally, and love our neighbour as our self – simple commands that demand the whole of our life.  Who is our neighbour? The story of the Good Samaritan implies that our neighbour is anyone we see in need and have the ability to help.  In this context, the people dying in Sudan are our neighbours – we can see their needs (if we choose to keep our eyes open), and can do something to help them.  We spiritualise this call to sacrifice our lives for others, and there is truth in this – ultimately spiritual salvation is better for an individual than just prolonging their life on earth for a few days or years.  BUT, we can’t reduce our responsibility to only a spiritual level – the stories and commands of Jesus clearly demonstrate that we have a responsibility to help people physically as well as spiritually.

The passage in Matthew 25 is the only time Jesus gives a clear picture of judgment, and in it he portrays judgment based on helping the needy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked etc.  How seriously do we take this clear picture of judgment?  I wonder if we’ll ever have to stand before Jesus to answer the question “When I was starving in Sudan, what did you do to help me?” Matt 25:42.  It seems that we hear few sermons & little teaching on this aspect of judgment, and probably don’t include it in the promises of God that we lay claim to, yet we focus a lot on much ‘smaller’ concepts in the Bible.  There are many verses in the Bible that show the importance of giving to the poor (eg Dt 15:11, Pr 14:21,31, 19:17, 21:13, 28:27, 29:7, 31:9, Mt 19:21, Lk 14:12, Gal 2:10 etc)

Tear Fund are currently feeding 2,000 malnourished children in Sudan, as well as providing child-focused health education for 20,000 and toilets for 50,000. (These $90 toilets aren’t a glamorous way to give aid, but in refugee camps they’re the most important thing after water and food).  World Vision (www.worldvision.org.nz) say that $25NZ will feed a family of 5 in Sudan for a month.  Hopefully, if food is provided for a year, the family could then become self-sufficient – if this is true, then it’s reasonable to say that $60NZ is enough to save a life (ie $5/month for a year).  If someone gave $600 for this cause, they could say they have helped ‘save’ 10 people.

Back to my initial question – what price would we (I) pay to save a life?  I know I would pay all I have to save my child.  What about someone else’s child in Sudan?  Will I actually pay the $60 to save 1 life, or $600 for 10 lives, or $6000 for …. ????  These are challenging questions – they don’t help me sleep at night, but they might help when I stand before Jesus (Matthew 25).

David Allis  26 Oct 2004

* I wrote this 15 years ago – and it is still true. I wrote about the crisis in Sudan – and there is still a crisis in Sudan (a new crisis). And unfortunately, there still seems to be a lack of engagement & action from middle-class westerners, including those who self-identify as Christians and those that don’t.
I’ve been involved with the growing Effective Altruism social movement since the early 2010s – but as this article I recently rediscovered shows, I’ve been thinking (& acting) about these things for a long time. One of the early influences in my life was while at University in the late 1970s reading Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider. In the words of Brooke Fraser’s Albertine “now that I have seen, I am responsible”   5 June 2019